Does the Mayor of Burlington Want its Citizens to Face Hurtful Investments? Glitter in the Gutter?
On July 3, Pine Street Coalition leader, South End resident, Professor Emeritus in Sociology SUNY Plattsburgh, wrote this summary of misguided city development at any cost--Dr. Charles Simpson words here:
Young, energetic, a gym-goer, parent of young girls, attractive in a riverboat gambler sort of way, holding developer credentials that include "affordable housing", our mayor is "a man in a hurry" to get things done. What's not to like about Miro? That's his campaign persona, at least. It worked once, then again, netting him the support of the reliable middle class voters with a property stake in the city along with the backing of the developer community.
His problem now is that he didn't deliver. Not very much, at least. We got an absurdly expensive remake of the bike/walk path, made more expensive due to a toxic soil fiasco that had the City storing it for nearly a year at a public park. After eliciting proposals from far and wide, he couldn't pull off a Moran Plant remake. It was flawed in concept to begin with: an ice climbing wall? Please. Following up on the example of a 2006 move by the School District to sell the Taft School, a structure built in 1939 with funds from private philanthropy and over $111,000 from the Works Progress Administration--a structure that in its post-education phase was required to become housing for indigent men according to the Taft will--he tried to put Memorial Auditorium similarly into play. Imagining it as simply a fiscal liability rather than a vibrant civic arena, he sought to pass it out of municipal control to UVM until the university opened the bag and found a cat instead of the pig. The cat was the absence of adjacent parking and the presence of likely structural decay. Twisting and turning for a new project, he promised to revive a remnant of the '80s circumferential highway through the South End, pretending that the public purpose of moving interstate highway traffic into the downtown core was still a viable goal. Not to worry that the highway was to end at Lake Street and the downtown had evolved away from a mass shopping function. Thanks to alert citizen activists, that plan is in the courts. Then, there's his efforts to prime the development pump. First there was spot zoning, specifically setting aside the results of a planning process with elaborate public input, specifically Plan BTV, to boost the height limits for two blocks of downtown. The resulting demolition of existing stores destroyed the financial viability of our only department store while the project itself, despite the promised transfusion of some $22 million in tax increment funding, remains a hole in the ground. In desperation for some achievement, he next fixated on a $6 million-plus redesign of a completely serviceable public park, a grandiose and unneeded "improvement" proposed overtly as a solution to soil management issues and less obviously as way to rid the downtown of panhandlers. This too has been stalled by civic activists, unconvinced that lighted and pulsating water jets represent the tourism attraction that visitors seek in New England.
Then there's the "sins of omission", beginning with the mayor's failure to scotch the Air Force's plans to station 18 nuclear-capable fighter/bombers at our airport in the most densely settled area of the state and including his financial deal with a private investor that guaranteed the sale of our municipal telecom.
Had Weinberger listened to authentic public input rather than the charade it became as orchestrated by "outreach consultants", each of these projects would have been greatly improved to the benefit of the public. Citizens developed a much better plan for the remnant of the circumferential highway that would actually enhanced travel connectivity and neighborhood life. Had the mayor listed to critics of downtown development, a reasonably-sized project there would be in the last stages of construction adding jobs, housing, and office space. Had His Honor listened to park enthusiasts, there would be a public bathroom in the downtown and an oasis of shade and grass for the residents rather than another festival venue. Perhaps we'd even have a public toddler play area.
Some changes have happened for which Mayor Weinberger can take credit. He blocked his own Parks and Recreation department's proposal to expand public moorings at the lake, including refusing the federal grant that went with it, in order to transfer that development opportunity to a group of private investors allowed to lease the public waterfront. He can count on more than 700 units of new housing at Cambrian Rise, a project "greased" with $2 million in public funding to secure its lake view and green space. Citizen activists wanted additional public benefits--more open land and space for wildlife--but they were rebuffed. Now, with construction underway, even that deal is beginning to seem suspicious as conflict of interest allegations between buyers and sellers have been raised.
To a great degree, politics is a matter of projection. Voters endow candidates and officials with their own hopes and dreams and a positive self image. Here in Burlington, we want to think that our town is dynamic, innovative, compassionate, and trend-setting while delivering quality social services with the costs justly apportioned. This conviction allows us to feel better about ourselves. Our choice of community is thus validated. It takes a lot of failure to chip away at this cultural capital. And for a long time we may be distracted by the razzle-dazzle: "cool" electric scooters on our bike path, a spectacular fireworks display on July 4th, announcements of great works just around the corner including bouncing colored water jets in City Hall Park. But my sense is that it's the morning after Mardi Gras. The only razzle-dazzle we can see is some glitter in the gutter.